In my days as a non-Catholic Christian, I firmly held to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. It was a teaching that I really didn’t question because, as far as I knew, it was the most basic and fundamental principle of Christianity. After all, wasn’t this the one thing that the Protestant Reformers rescued from the wicked “Papists” who for so long had led people to believe that we are saved by our works?
On one level, I missed the logical fact that to believe is itself a work. But more importantly, I failed to realise that the Catholic Church, as the pillar and foundation of truth, was actually right on the teaching of justification all along. Thanks be to God, He was gracious enough to allow me to see that Sola Fide is unscriptural and that the teaching of the Protestant Reformers was not in line with what the Church has taught since the time of the Apostles.Just because we Catholics do not believe we are saved by faith alone, Protestants tend to think that this must mean that we believe we are saved by works. This is unfair reasoning at best, and really is not what the Catholic Church teaches. Rather, the Church teaches that we are in fact saved by faith, but that faith is not alone i.e. saving faith is necessarily and always accompanied by good works.
One of the “proof-texts” used by Protestants to back up their doctrine of Sola Fide is Eph 2:8-9 where St. Paul says:
“...by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
But this verse should not be read in isolation, because St. James tells us quite emphatically:
“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead...You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Jms 2:17,24
A reading of the entire passage in James 2 will reveal that in St. James’ argument, a “dead faith” is a very real faith (even the devils believe and tremble – v19); but it is a dead faith nonetheless. Following St. James’ thought, if justification is by faith alone (as Protestants suggest); then the devil himself would be justified by his faith. On the flip-side of this “dead faith” is a faith which MUST be accompanied by good works if it is to be living and life-giving.Origen, writing early in the third century affirmed this when he said:
“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he professes to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James.” – Commentaries on John
So, how do we reconcile what St. James says about works and faith with what St. Paul’s teaching? One way of looking at the above verses is to perceive that St. James teaches us that we are not saved by faith alone, whilst St. Paul teaches us that we are not saved by works alone. Rather, we need to see that neither faith nor works stand alone. They stand together hand-in-hand and both are gifts from God. So, even though we are saved by faith AND works, it ultimately comes back to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace and God’s grace ALONE.This is also echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation...without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life but he who endures to the end. Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man...” CCC #161-162
“Our justification comes from the grace of God...” CCC # 1996Interestingly, when one examines the Gospels, you will find that our Lord placed more emphasis on good works than He did on faith. His parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:1-14) bears this out when He speaks of the person without the wedding robe being case into outer darkness (v 12-13). Comparing this passage with St. John’s Revelation, we find that the fine linen garment “is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8).
So if we desire to enter into the presence of God when our earthly sojourn is complete, let us never cease in our pursuit of holiness and good works in faith, without which we can never see God (Heb 12:14). And let us do so in faith, because without faith, it is impossible for our good works to please God (Heb 11:6).